Chelsea freedom

Antonio Conte gives his Chelsea players “freedom and responsibility” in their spare time – and Eden Hazard is thriving with the same instructions on the field.

Conte was asked about his policy over his players’ free time after Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney apologised this week for “inappropriate” behaviour at the England team hotel last weekend.

The Italian head coach said: “After the game, when the players have spare time, it’s important I give them freedom.

“I want my players, when they have spare time (to) take responsibility. When I was a footballer, I had this type of experience after games.

“It’s normal … if you win the game, that you want to celebrate.”

Hazard is revelling in a 3-4-3 formation which has seen Chelsea win five straight Premier League games, scoring 16 goals without reply.

Conte believes Hazard’s performances are “fantastic”, because he is putting the team first.

“In this moment he’s a great player above all because he’s working a lot for the team,” Conte added.

The Belgium playmaker was key in Chelsea’s 2014-15 title success, but disappointed last season when he had a niggling hip injury as Chelsea finished a lowly 10th.

And Conte says it is premature to compare the 25-year-old to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

“It’s important now Eden is showing his talent and playing very well,” Conte added. “If we want to compare him with the other players, it’s not right at this moment.

“He has all the potential to do great things in his career. Now it’s important he’s putting himself in the team.”

Diego Costa’s goals have been integral to Chelsea’s resurgence and Conte is planning to wait to decide whether to start with the striker at Middlesbrough on Sunday.

Costa, who has netted nine goals this season, withdrew from international duty with Spain with a groin problem but returned to training this week.

Conte said: “His physical condition is good. There is also tomorrow (Saturday) to see perfectly the situation. At the moment, he can play.”

Chelsea have beaten Hull, Manchester United, champions Leicester, Southampton and Everton in the last five Premier League games, since Conte switched to a three-man defence after the loss to Arsenal.

The 5-0 defeat of the Toffees came prior to the international break, but Conte hopes his players can resume where they left off as he once again refused to discuss Chelsea’s title chances.

He added: “This week we are working to find the right concentration, the right focus, to restart in the right way.

“I see a great opportunity this year to build something important with Chelsea. For this reason to build a new idea of football, a new method, a new philosophy.

“It’s logical when you play in this championship you want to fight until the end, to win the title or for a place in the Champions League.

“For me now it’s early to talk about this. It’s important now to continue to work with the players and to continue to build something of importance for Chelsea, for the present, for the future.”

With Costa fit and midfielder Cesc Fabregas and defender Kurt Zouma fit again, Chelsea have no injury concerns.

But Zouma will not be rushed back to the first team following his lengthy lay-off with a knee injury.

“Until now, so far, we were lucky because not one player came back from the national team injured,” Conte said.

The international break has seen debate over Oscar’s future, given his peripheral status at Stamford Bridge.

“Oscar’s future is Chelsea. For me he’s an important player in my squad,” Conte said.

The Italian said the same applied to Fabregas after being asked specifically about the Spain playmaker’s fitness, but not his future.

“For Cesc it’s the same speech as for Oscar. I anticipate the question,” Conte said.

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